Culture May Impact How You Search and Remember Websites

How cross-cultural psychology does (and does not) apply to online behavior

This summarizes our 2021 CHI paper “Do Cross-Cultural Differences in Visual Attention Patterns Affect Search Efficiency on Websites?,” for which we are very honored to have received an Honorable Mention award!

One of the things that blew my mind when I first started learning about the field of HCI is that people intuitively want to use user interfaces in different ways, and many of these are culturally influenced. Culture influences what people find visually appealing on the web, which in turn influences how quickly they can find information on websites.

How Culture Impacts Perception

In particular, cross-cultural psychology has studied how people pay attention to different visual information. Richard Nisbett and Takahiko Masuda ran a famous study comparing how Westerners and East Asians pay attention to different elements in a visual scene.

Map of the world with yellow pins over the US, Canada, and Western Europe, which are labelled as “Westerners” and red pins over Korea, Japan, China, Hong Kong, and Singapore, which are labelled as “East Asians.” Westerners are known to focus on foreground, whereas East Asians are known to focus on context and background.
Map of the world with yellow pins over the US, Canada, and Western Europe, which are labelled as “Westerners” and red pins over Korea, Japan, China, Hong Kong, and Singapore, which are labelled as “East Asians.” Westerners are known to focus on foreground, whereas East Asians are known to focus on context and background.
Cross-cultural research as shown differences in how Westerners and East Asians pay attention to different elements — both online and in real life.

For instance, after viewing the image below, American participants in a study tended to recount the salient foreground images first (such as the large fish), whereas Japanese participants first recounted information about the background (water color, floor, inert objects). Japanese participants also mentioned almost twice as many relationships between the foreground and background as did American participants.

Scene of a fish tank, including three large fish, a green “water” background, a sandy floor, and some small fish, as well as dark colored seaweed, a frog, and snail (which are small and not as easily spotted to my Western eyes).
Scene of a fish tank, including three large fish, a green “water” background, a sandy floor, and some small fish, as well as dark colored seaweed, a frog, and snail (which are small and not as easily spotted to my Western eyes).
Scene used in Nisbett and Masuda (2003) “Culture and Point of View

We set about investigating if these cross-cultural differences in attention patterns translate to how people navigate websites, measured by how quickly they find information, and how well they can remember (recall) it. We evaluated this in terms of:

  • Their country of origin (the U.S. or Japan)
  • Where the information was on the website (foreground or background)
  • How complex the website was (density of text and images on the site)

We ran this study on LabintheWild, a volunteer-based experiment platform, with participants from the US and Japan.

How Culture Impacts Search Efficiency and Information Recall

Because East Asian people are found to pay more attention to contextual information and relationships than Westerners, we expected that on websites, they would find peripheral information more quickly (“search efficiency”) and remember it better than Westerners (“information recall”). We also evaluated performance between these groups across various three levels of website visual complexity.

Website screenshots of low, medium, and high complexity. Low complexity is Duolingo’s site, which features a blue background, a header, an image of a globe, and button to get started. Medium complexity is Ryman, an online furniture store. It has a white background with red and grey elements, multiple header navigations, a lefthand navigation, and four photos of types of furnitures. High complexity is armor games, and online game platform with many colors and columns of icons and text content.
Website screenshots of low, medium, and high complexity. Low complexity is Duolingo’s site, which features a blue background, a header, an image of a globe, and button to get started. Medium complexity is Ryman, an online furniture store. It has a white background with red and grey elements, multiple header navigations, a lefthand navigation, and four photos of types of furnitures. High complexity is armor games, and online game platform with many colors and columns of icons and text content.
Three example websites used in the study, at low, medium, and high complexity. Red frames outline the main content area that was defined to constitute the foreground of a page.

However, we found that Japanese participants took significantly longer to find information than US participants, regardless of where it was, and in both groups, participants found information in the foreground of a website most quickly. This was especially true when websites were highly complex, with lots of text and images. Similarly, participants from both the US and Japan remembered foreground information best, and at high and medium complexity, participants from the US remembered more peripheral information than Japanese participants.

Why were our hypotheses disconfirmed?

Differences in Attention Styles

While we don’t know the reasons for sure, one explanation for our disconfirmed hypotheses is that Americans fixate sooner and longer on specific (foreground) objects, while East Asians engage in rapid non-targeted eye movements (saccades) across websites, presumably to understand the relationship between objects. The extra time spent before encoding visual information may explain why Japanese spend more time than Americans to find information. This suggests these rapid eye movements across different content areas of a page are not for information uptake, but rather to create an internal map of the structure of the site and the relationship between its various parts.

Differences Inherent to Websites and 3D Visual Scenes

Cross-cultural psychology has focused on visual attention in 3D “real world” visual scenes, which may not translate to websites, as they do not have as clearly assignable foreground and background parts. People may simply process websites differently than real world scenes. Our international team went through multiple iterations to approximate what we believe was closest to the definition of foreground and background (or periphery) in those prior studies, so we don’t think that slight changes in defining foreground and background elements on websites would change our results.

Differences in Reading Speed in Different Scripts

The only difference across the stimuli displayed to Japanese and American participants was the script: Japanese participants saw websites with Japanese script, and American participants saw websites with Latin script (in the English language). Past research has shown that the average reading speeds are distinct across these two scripts, with English readers reading 228 words per minute on average, and Japanese readers reading 193 words per minute on average (source). However, our results showed that, on average, Japanese take significantly longer to find information, even for websites with the least amount of text, so it is unclear if this explains the difference in search efficiency. Nevertheless, reading speed may play a role, since the difference in performance between US and Japanese participants increases with more text-heavy websites.

The Big Takeaway

The results clearly showed that Japanese and Americans approach websites differently: while Americans seek out information as fast as they can, Japanese seem to be taking the extra step of holistically making sense of a website before engaging in a primary search task. This additional step does not appear to contribute to searching a website and remembering information, but is instead a separate sense-making step that Americans do not have, or at least not to the same extent.

Because we found that Japanese take longer to find information than Americans, time can not be assumed to be an objective performance measurement across cultures. Instead, researchers may need to normalize time across different nationalities. They should also rely on different, or at least include additional, performance metrics such as task success, errors, or learnability.

Interested in learning more?

Check out our paper or 5 minute video! You can also visit our websites or follow us on Twitter:

PhD Student at University of Washington, studying HCI and NLP